China: Stimulus – At What Cost?

Today is the second day of the dreaded gaokao, the national college entrance exam that more than half of all Chinese kids in their age cohort will sit to determine whether or not they will go to university (just over 60% of the test takers will start college next September) and, much more importantly, which one they will attend. Throughout Beijing anxious parents are standing glumly in the heavy (but cleansing) June rain waiting for their kids to emerge from the exams so that they can pepper them with worried questions. It is a scary time for a lot of people.

In the previous six years the number of students taking the exam has jumped every year, from 5.3 million in 2002 to 10.5 million in 2008. This year, for the first time, the number of students sitting the exam has actually declined to 10.2 million.

The official position is that the decline reflects a drop in the number of 18-year-olds in China, but there has been widespread discussion in the press that the decline was too large to be explained just by the smaller number of high-school graduates, and that in part it reflects fears of rising unemployment among college graduates. College is becoming a less attractive option to some Chinese.

6.1 million college students will graduate this month and, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, about 1 million have been unable to find jobs so far. Over the past three years the number of college graduates finding jobs has stagnated even as the number of graduates has surged, even during the boom years of 2006 and 2007. Part of this was caused by the surge in college enrollment, but at least part of the employment difficulties facing college graduates has been blamed on the very poor quality of university education, especially in the new or newly expanded schools, and its failure to prepare students for the kinds of jobs that the market wants.

Over recent months the government has made finding position for graduates, including in the army and as rural high school teachers, a top priority. The front page of today’s People’s Daily has an article citing a speech by Premier Wen Jiabao in Xi’an (in Shaanxi province) encouraging graduates to widen their job search:

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has urged the country’s college students to find grassroots jobs in less developed regions as the economic downturn increases pressures in employment market. Visiting Xi’an, capital of central Shaanxi Province, from Friday to Sunday, Wen said employment was one of the government’s priorities for the sake of the country’s economy and for the future of individuals.

“College students, laid-off workers and migrant workers waiting for jobs are my biggest concern,” Wen told job hunters at an employment center. He encouraged graduates from universities and colleges to find work in grassroots regions, and called on employers to create more jobs.

Since the second half of last year, the government has implemented a series of policies to create jobs. The State Council, or Cabinet, also decided to give living allowances to graduates who went to the central and western regions for internships.

Besides exhorting college grads to take the kinds of jobs they usually shun, the government is also still working on boosting growth. The Ministry of Finance recently raised the rebate of export taxes by around 15%, according to another article in today’s People’s Daily. This is part of the move to increase China’s export competitiveness, but I am not sure these kinds of measures are likely to have much positive global impact beyond crowding out export competitors and worsening the global trade environment.

As badly as Chinese exports have been hurt, and exports were down 22.6% year on year in April, Chinese exporters have still done much better than other exporting countries in Asia and elsewhere, suggesting that they have managed to avoid much of the brunt in the contraction in global imports, led by the contraction in the US. This, as I argued in last week’s entry, has as much to do with credit and interest rate policies as it does with any inherent competitive advantage.

Not surprisingly, given these moves, expectations of a rise in the value of the RMB are declining. For the fifth day in a row, according to an article in today’s Bloomberg, the 12 month RMB forward declined, trading currently at 6.714, implying a 1.8% appreciation over the year (because these forward markets cannot easily be arbitraged, they do not price according to interest differentials, as forwards normally do, and so may contain more expectational content that a lot of other forward markets).

Meanwhile an interesting article in always-hard-hitting Caijing worries about the flood of bank credit, and whether borrowers are earning nearly enough to cover interest costs:

Chinese bank lending increased to more than 5 trillion yuan between January and April, nearly three times the credit level reported during the same period last year. Even if new loans average only 500 billion yuan during each of the remaining eight months of 2009, the year’s total would be more than 9 trillion yuan – more than all loans issued over the previous two years combined.

The industrial sector’s recent performance provides solid grounds for concern over this rapid credit growth. A National Statistics Bureau survey of 22 regions found industrial profits totaled only 323 billion yuan during the first quarter, down 32 percent from a year earlier. That means annual profits for all industries will amount to only about 1.6 trillion yuan this year.

Outstanding loans currently stand at 35 trillion yuan. Assuming companies have kept a moderate debt ratio averaging less than 50 percent, their capital investments now exceed 35 trillion yuan. And profits of 1.6 trillion yuan versus 35 trillion in capital investment means an annual return rate of only 4.57 percent, below the weighted loan interest rate of 4.76 percent we saw in March. In this sense, companies seem to be in a rather weak position to finance debt with earnings.

Although the writer of the piece, economist Lu Lei, thinks that continued expansion in the banking system creates enormous risks, he doubts that the PBoC will put the brakes on bank lending for a number of reasons, the most important being that commercial bank lending is at the heart (and lungs and nearly every other organ I can think of) of the fiscal stimulus program, and without it, there is no stimulus.

Looking at tax revenues, local governments nationwide were unable to collect as much in the first quarter as in the same period 2008. In fact, tax receipts fell 1.4 percent, in sharp contrast to the 34.7 percent increase posted a year earlier. Cursed with double pressure from a directive to invest and shrinking revenue, local governments have had every incentive to use banks as financing proxies.

Now we’re faced with the possibility of undesirable negative GDP growth. Banks, concerned about defaults, may grant only 300 billion yuan in new loans every month for the rest of the year. So we’re stuck with a painful choice between two losing scenarios: a more moderate monetary policy that would cripple fiscal policy, leading to an outright “hard-landing;” or continuing a loose monetary policy backed by fiscal spending, which risks future loan losses and a weaker market. To get around the problem, the central bank may be forced to fill holes at banks by pumping in money, in effect imposing an inflation tax on all consumers.

Lu lei’s “painful choice” is exactly right, and what an inevitable worrier like me has been worrying about since last summer. In January I wrote about this “all but the kitchen sink” policy, of throwing everything they can into stimulating the economy, and said that although this would certainly result in higher than expected growth this year, it would come at a real cost. I wrote:

This strategy may be politically necessary but ultimately represents a gamble on the duration of the global slowdown. If the duration is short and the slowdown light, it will have been a winning gamble, and once the world takes off again China can get serious about resolving the internal imbalances.

Of course if the global slowdown is long and deep, the gamble will have failed. That means, dear readers, that if Chinese GDP growth in 2009 is higher than I projected – say 8% – I will not whip out the party hats and favors. Instead I will immediately begin whining about the state of the banking system.

To make matters worse there is a story that appeared a few weeks ago in an article in Australian newspaper The Age, warning about something that has been much discussed over the past year, that the fiscal stimulus package, or more precisely, the way it is being financed, could lead to rising contingent debt at the provincial and municipal level.

Beijing will have to jam on the economic brakes to save cities from bankrupting themselves, says a top Chinese adviser. He Fan, an assistant director at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who frequently advises top leaders, says as much as two-thirds of Beijing’s 4 trillion yuan ($A773 billion) stimulus program will be spent by local governments, financed mainly by state-owned banks.

“Some local governments will virtually go bankrupt,” Professor He told BusinessDay. “Previously, local governments got all their money from selling land. This is not sustainable. Some areas have already sold quotas from the next 30 years.” A number of large cities are thought to be at risk, including Kunming and Hangzhou, with their funding problems exacerbated by a slump in real estate sales.

Professor He goes on to worry that easy money has poured into asset markets as well as questionable projects that were previously rejected by the NDRC.

“Banks have strong incentives to lend to NDRC-approved projects because if they end up as a fiasco, there is no political risk,” he said. “They can say ‘it is not my fault, the NDRC told us to lend’.”

When banks are encouraged to lend huge amounts, and with an implicit guarantee against any losses, it is pretty hard to imagine their not embarking on a wild lending spree. On a related but very different subject, I have been corresponding with Steve Keen, a professor at the University of Western Sydney and someone whose blog I often read and whose unconventional insights I find very valuable and persuasive (the fact that he is an expert in and admirer of the works of Hyman Minsky doesn’t hurt either).

I wrote to him to ask his thoughts on the implications on monetary policy and debt structures of China’s rising savings rate. It seems to me that as savings rise as a share of GDP, this must have dampened the impact of the very loose monetary conditions in China over the past several year. If this is the case, and if savings rates do indeed decline in the next few years, there could be important consequences for monetary policy. I plan to think about this a little more and, if I come up with anything interesting to say, I will write about it. Maybe some of the readers of this blog might have some interesting ideas. Steve Keen’s initial response included the following:

Now that the American private sector has stopped borrowing, but both American and Chinese governments are pumping base money into the system, and American consumers and businesses are desperately trying to delever, the dynamics alter considerably. But I expect the overall result will be a relative fall in the Chinese “savings rate” and a rise in the American one.

Obviously I think looking at this from the point of view of savings rather than debt is why we haven’t worked this out to date. A lower consumption rate is definitely part of it, but the debt flows themselves-which generate the monetary flows that then accumulate in accounts depending on consumption rates–are the driving part of the story, not the consumption rates themselves.

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About Michael Pettis 166 Articles

Affiliation: Peking University

Michael Pettis is a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He has also taught, from 2002 to 2004, at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management and, from 1992 to 2001, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

Pettis has worked on Wall Street in trading, capital markets, and corporate finance since 1987, when he joined the Sovereign Debt trading team at Manufacturers Hanover (now JP Morgan). Most recently, from 1996 to 2001, Pettis worked at Bear Stearns, where he was Managing Director-Principal heading the Latin American Capital Markets and the Liability Management groups.

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